You’re having a laugh!

In these uncertain times, humour is as good a pick-me-up as anything – and certainly much less damaging than turning to drink. STEVEN RUSSELL has a laugh as he flicks through a new book

“THROUGH humour you can soften some of the worst blows that life delivers,” said the American comedian Bill Cosby. “And once you find laughter, no matter how painful your situation might be, you can survive it.”

Perhaps we should paste that onto giant billboards during these austere and unpredictable days – along with bon mots such as this one from Oscar Wilde, who surely should have been born in the Twitter age: “It is a curious fact that people are never so trivial as when they take themselves seriously.”

Several dozen witticisms such as these, and wisdom-wrapped-in-smiles, are collected in the latest offering from Chelmsford writer, journalist and public relations man Paul Wellings.

The Divine Comedians is a 50-odd-page compendium of quips from the kings and queens of comedy. There are new and old, ranging from Joan Rivers and Sarah Millican to Eddie Izzard and Tommy Cooper.

The suggestion is that with music arguably becoming increasingly backward-looking and self-referential, and visual art more esoteric and unfathomable, comedy cuts to the core of the human condition more incisively than any other popular art form.

This selection-box of one-liners, satirical comments and wry but accurate observations is offered as evidence.

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Paul Wellings – who these days also does stints as a club and radio DJ, playing chill-out tunes – is a bit of a pop-culture connoisseur.

We last met him more than five years ago for a chat about his book Sex, Lines and Videotape, which offered “a choice selection of the best one-liners, rants and repartee from the movies that I love”.

That talk lengthened into a putting-the-world-to rights session that ranged from a lament about Top of the Pops (in its pomp, the glue that held together the music scene) to the depressing state of fare regularly served by cinema multiplexes: car-chase movies and lots of shooting.

The state of football in the 21st Century also came up. He’d been a West Ham United fan for more than three decades and, the year before, had published Spend It Like Beckham, which discussed the greed, racism and homophobia in soccer over that period: “Agents, bungs and about the fact that football is no longer the working man’s game. It’s about corporate entertainment and has turned into ‘suits’.”

The son of a PE teacher, Paul grew up in overspill towns such as Hemel Hempstead and Harlow. He wrote stories for friends to pass around – chisel-jawed heroes, soccer and kung fu featured a lot – and he later became a journalist with a paper in Leighton Buzzard and then the music publication Sounds.

He had three or four years at the legendary NME (New Musical Express), three on the Mirror newspaper, and a spell with the Evening Standard in the late 1980s.

There was an unusual stint, too: on pirate radio station LWR (London Weekend Radio), which provided an outlet for his love of rhythm and blues and hip-hop. A bit of freelance journalism kept some money coming in during this period.

One of Paul’s earlier books – I’m A Journalist . . . Get Me Out Of Here! – captured the colour of his much-enjoyed time on the NME.

Later, a magazine commissioned him to go on a cruise and write about dance music around the world. If that wasn’t a coup enough, he met wife-to-be Lisa on the boat – a soul music enthusiast heading for Australia to visit relatives. The couple had two children: Eve and Nathan.

When journalism proved not to be so very lucrative, Paul changed tack in the early 1990s and worked in media relations, with the odd bit of freelance writing as the icing on the cake.

So where does comedy fit in? Well, it was an early and enduring love – “from buying my first Monty Python album as a school kid to seeing the anarchic Russell Brand tear down the Red Rose comedy club a few years ago”. And why comedy? – “because it’s good for the soul”.

Paul’s introduction to his collection does raise a question, however. Perhaps the stand-up form is at a crossroads. Perhaps, with the “alternative” comedians of the 1980s and 1990s now part of the mainstream, it has lost its radical edge.

Since Rob Newman and David Baddiel staged a big show at Wembley nearly 20 years ago – when, if cultural commentators are to be believed, comedy became the new rock and roll – stand-up has become ubiquitous and hugely popular. And perhaps too

sanitised . . . ?

Paul suggests there’s a middle way between the taboo-busting of a performer such as Frankie Boyle and the “unashamed observational populism” of Michael McIntyre. The jokes and quips he’s collated are designed to show how the best comedians can combine mass appeal with boundary-pushing humour.

He also suggests it’s not an easy time for those who seek to make us laugh. It’s difficult knowing how to pitch material.

Paul writes, for instance, that “The McCarthyite forces of intolerance are back in comedy. We saw it in 2008 with Russell Brand and Jonathan Ross when the Daily Mail asked for two talented, subversive performers to be burned at the stake for a juvenile prank.” (It involved unpleasant messages being left on the answerphone of actor Andrew Sachs by the pair during Ross’s Radio 2 show.)

Then there’s the debate about whether or not modern comedy is being stifled by political correctness.

On TV shows such as Little Britain and films featuring Sacha Baron Cohen’s satirical Kazakhstani journalist character, Borat, he argues, “it’s the fact that the writers are truly aware of what’s offensive – and what life was like before political correctness made things better – that makes them so funny”.

He himself is “a great fan of political correctness and feel that any indignities we suffer from PC’s overzealous policing are a small price to pay for all that it has achieved”.

Nowadays, he suggests, there isn’t even an “alternative comedy” movement as such. “Far better, there is merely ‘comedy’ where racist, sexist, homophobic humour is no longer acceptable.”

And among those comedians he salutes are “many renegade heretics, people ready to stand out against hypocrisy and injustice”.

The Divine Comedians (ISBN 9780954612160) is published by The Progressive Press at �4.99

A dozen to delight – 12 quips from The Divine Comedians

Spike Milligan: How long was I in the army? Five foot eleven.

Woody Allen: Basically, my wife was immature. I’d be at home in the bath and she’d come in and sink my boats.

Groucho Marx: Room service? Send up a larger room.

Tommy Cooper: Police arrested two kids yesterday. One was drinking battery acid, the other was eating fireworks. They charged one and let the other one off.

Ellen DeGeneres: You have to stay in shape. My grandmother, she started walking five miles a day when she was 60. She’s 97 today and we don’t know where the hell she is.

Emo Philips: A computer once beat me at chess, but it was no match for me at kick-boxing.

Joan Rivers: I knew I was an unwanted baby when I saw that my bath toys were a toaster and a radio.

Micky Flanagan: I’ve worked out what ambience is. It’s a night out without poor people basically, isn’t it?

Jack Whitehall: I’m sure wherever my dad is, he’s looking down on us. He’s not dead – just very condescending.

Marcus Brigstocke: To the people who’ve got iPhones: You just bought one; you didn’t invent it.

Rhod Gilbert: A spa hotel? It’s like a normal hotel, only in reception there’s a picture of a pebble.

Woody Allen: I have bad reflexes. I was once run over by a car being pushed by two guys.

Paul Wellings: one-liners

In the early 1980s he was a member of a group called the Anti Social Workers, who released an LP

He landed the job on NME when, as a writer with Sounds, he interviewed NME star Tony Parsons. They hit it off and for more than a decade were great friends

The pirate radio station on which Paul once worked, LWR, launched the careers of DJs Tim Westwood and Pete Tong

Film-fan Paul’s favourite movie is Blue Collar, starring Richard Pryor and Harvey Keitel. It’s based on real events at an American car plant and including mafia dealings and corrupt unions

He remembers sneaking into a cinema at the age of 14 to watch One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, then X-rated. Enthralled, he sat through all three afternoon screenings and by the evening could quote lines verbatim.